Saturday, August 29, 2009

Apple #405: Disposable Lighters

Daily Apple reader Dan wants to know:

What about doing a daily apple entry about the disposable lighter? i know zippos and other butane lighters have been around for awhile, but what about the plastic disposable Bic? So ubiquitous these days.

Ah, yes. Having been a smoker for several years, I suspect this entry will be of greatest interest to those of you out there who are smokers. You probably have a favorite brand of lighter. You may even prefer a particular lighting mechanism that fits best with your thumb, or one whose flame won't gutter out in the wind. Perhaps you prefer a lighter that is adjustable, maybe one with the solid as opposed to translucent body, perhaps you even prefer one particular color of lighter over any others. It's all part of the ritual, I know.

Now you can find out all about the background of your second-favorite companion, your necessary tool that gives you flame, your disposable lighter.

(Photo from James Wood's Basecamp)

To be clear, "disposable lighters" refers to those low-cost plastic lighters that can be refilled (semi-disposable) as well as those that can't, and "luxury" lighters that are fancier but are still plastic. Basically anything but a Zippo is pretty much considered disposable.

These are refillable but still disposable.
(Photo from


  • The mechanism by which a lighter works, striking flint against iron, is based on that of the flintlock pistol.
  • Early non-disposable lighters were fueled by gasoline or methanol.
  • Cricket's website says they made the first disposable lighter in 1961. The first Cricket lighters were sold in Annecy, France.

A Cricket lighter today.
(Photo from Exchange3D, which also has 3d images of the interior of the lighter)

  • The Cricket lighter was very popular. It used the flint wheel and butane was the fuel of choice. Due to the relative stability of butane, other disposable lighter manufacturers followed suit.
  • Swedish Match, which also sells a lot of matches in the UK, in 1965. They made their first lighters in 1965 from the extra lipstick tube containers they had lying around, and they called them the Round Stick.
  • 1973, BIC which had previously made a lot of plastic-barreled pens, launched its first disposable lighter, which sported an adjustable flame.
  • The name BIC, by the way, is a take-off on the company founder's name, Bruno Bich.
  • The lighters were tremendously popular, and the titillating commercials featuring sensuous women encouraging smokers to "Flick my BIC" didn't hurt. (You can watch one of those old commercials on RealPlayer here, but it's one of the tamer ones.)
  • Then BIC cut the price of its disposable lighters to $1, and Gillette couldn't compete. By 1978, BIC sold more of their lighters than Gillette could sell their Crickets, and by 1984, Gillette stopped making the Crickets altogether. (Later, Gillette sold Cricket to Swedish Match Corporation, which now sells Cricket lighters primarily in the UK.)

Hard-to-read diagram of the workings of a BIC lighter.
(Diagram from BusinessWeek)

More details on how lighters work are available from FindTarget Reference.


  • While their lighters were selling like hotcakes, BIC was secretly accumulating a pile of lawsuits. The New York Times found out about this and in 1987 published an article revealing that BIC had settled more than 20 cases in which their lighters had leaked, exploded, failed, ignited while lying on overheated dashboards, or otherwise malfunctioned and injured somebody.
  • The company issued denials, stonewalled, hedged, etc. Their stock price plunged 25%. After a week during which all sorts of rumors swirled about the things their BIC lighters had got up to, BIC finally caved and admitted that, yes, they had settled lawsuits, and that in fact, they had an additional 42 lawsuits pending. And yes, it was true, a woman had died in an accident involving a BIC lighter.
  • But, BIC said, most of those accidents happened because the customer used the lighters incorrectly--not BIC's fault. And the model of lighter that killed that woman had been discontinued. Not to worry, they said. And it worked. Soon BIC's stock price started to go back up again.
  • But the issue of safety didn't go away. And here is where the disposable lighter-road diverges into two paths: one path that safety advocates take, and one taken by smokers who like their lighters to have some guts.
  • BIC kept getting sued over incidents in which their lighters had severely injured children, exploded when dropped, etc. Lawyers for BIC argued that the children had clearly been left unsupervised--not BIC's fault, in other words. BIC said that out of 50 such lawsuits, they lost only 3, and two of them were later reversed.
  • But, BIC said, the cost of defending themselves against such lawsuits was prohibitive. So in 1992 they said with a sigh, all right, we'll give, and they made a lighter that had a child resistant catch. You had to slide the catch up and to the right before the lighter would strike.
  • (I hated those lighters. The latch didn't always work right, it was a pain to slide that thing up and over, and the whole thing was wimpy. Most people I knew who had lighters like that found a way to tear off the safety catches or else they chucked the lighter entirely and bought different ones. One store in Chicago next to the Brown line sold those kinds of lighters with the safety catch already removed.)
  • In 1994, the Consumer Product Safety Commission adopted a standard for disposable lighters that required child-resistant features.

Now BICs are sold with the child-resistant guard, which is a metal band that goes over the spark wheel. I think the guard is supposed to make it harder to turn the wheel and thus light the lighter. I never saw that much of a difference with these, but some people are really annoyed by the guards, and they pry them off.
(Photo from Total Merchandise UK)

  • Grudgingly, BIC and other, smaller lighter manufacturers in the US have been adding child safety features.
  • In the meantime, they've all started designing lighters specifically for "the youth market." The lighters have designs on them that would appeal to teenagers or kids. The growth in sales in these "youth" lighters is among the highest growth categories in the lighter industry. So much for that business about not encouraging kids to smoke, I guess.

Lighters targeted to the younger crowd.
(Photo from Empire Distributor)

  • In the late 1990s, cheap imported lighters imported from China started showing up in stores. These lighters are made by New York Lighter, Spec, and Iwax or Wax. Unlike lighters made in the US, imported lighters are not required to have any child-resistant features. Furthermore, these lighters had -- and still have -- even higher failure rates than the original BIC lighters.
  • And here's where the Consumer Product Safety Commission has started to get mad. Canada, Mexico, the EU, all sorts of countries have adopted mandatory safety requirements for their imported disposable lighters. The US has not. So the cheap Chinese lighters keep getting imported here, and people keep getting hurt.


  • About 1 billion lighters are sold in the US each year.
  • For every million lighters sold, one person gets injured.
  • About 3 million lighters are sold per day.
  • This means three people are injured each day from disposable lighters.
  • One person dies each year due to accidents with disposable lighters.
  • In 1993, the Consumer Product Safety Commission estimated that 97% of the house fires that happened in the US that year were caused by disposable lighters.
  • In 2002, after more lighters were sold with child safety features, they reported a 40% reduction in the number of fires and a 50% reduction in the number of injuries and deaths. As of 2005, retail sales of lighters in the US topped $600 million. Even though cigarette sales have declined, lighter sales have increased. Riddle me that one.

Pretty much whatever you want pictured on your lighter, you can get. These are James Bond 007 BICs. Judging by the number of James Bond lighters I found pictured online, they seem to be in-demand.
(Photo from the James Bond Shop)


  • Apparently a story has been circulating for several decades that once upon a time, two welders (or railroad workers or soldiers) were killed by butane lighters that exploded. Big deal, right? But the story includes the little detail that the explosion was equal to that of 3 sticks of dynamite. This, according to Snopes, is false.
  • However, as we know from all the lawsuits, there have been lots of actual injuries and even deaths involving lighters.
  • The accidents can be caused when the plastic casing melts, the butane overheats or leaks, bits of flint get under the gas jet so that it doesn't extinguish properly, or the canister is compromised.
  • In my own personal experience, one night my friend and I were sitting outside on her back porch and she lit her cigarette and all of a sudden there was a bang so loud I thought someone had shot a gun at us. It was her lighter, one of those translucent ones, green, that had exploded. She held it in her hand, laughing nervously, and showed me how half of one barrel had blown clear off. Her hand was also burned in one spot.
  • In 1987, Cynthia Littlejohn from Philadelphia was on a camping trip. She was sitting near the campfire with her disposable lighter in her front shirt pocket. While inside the pocket, her lighter "ignited, engulfing her in flames." She was burned from the neck to the waist. BIC later paid her a settlement of $3.25 million.
  • During the Littlejohn court case, BIC admitted that they knew of more than 50 similar fires had started when people kept their BICs in their right front shirt pockets.
  • Kellie Davidson, a 12 year-old girl from Kentucky, had her left breast and half her face burned off when her BIC lighter exploded. BIC settled the case and agreed started a $425,000 fund to make payments to the girl for the rest of her life.
  • In 1985, Ethel Smith from Tower City, PA was lighting her cigarette when the lighter exploded. She caught on fire and two days later died of the burns. Her husband who tried to put out the flames suffered second- and third-degree burns.
  • Kenneth Lovli from Tampa was 23 when his lighter exploded and he suffered burns on 70 percent of his body. He lived 17 days after this.
  • In 1995 in Brussels, a disposable lighter salesman had 500 lighters in his car. They heated up in the warmth of the sun until finally they exploded and his car burst into flames.
  • One man from New York was about to board a plane for the Dominican Republic. He was carrying a bag full of disposable lighters (why, I have no idea). The lighters in the bag blew up, fortunately before they were loaded onto the plane.
  • On November 2006 Mythbusters did a segment about exploding lighters. They wound up concluding that the premise that one lighter could be lethal was a myth, but that 500 lighters exploding in a car was "plausible."

Mythbusters. If I trusted the results of their experiments before -- and I'm not sure whether I did -- I sure don't now, after reading their conclusions about whether or not exploding lighters is a myth.
(Photo from metapedia)

  • I suggest to Mythbusters that their experiments represent too low a sample to be reliable, that they read the testimony of people who were severely burned or by the relatives of those who died from lighter explosions, or that they go interview those people themselves.
  • Furthermore, Mythbusters, I invite you to type "exploding lighter" into a YouTube search and you'll see for yourselves how easy it is to make a lighter explode.
  • Finally, this report from the Lighter Association, practically begging that safety standards be required of foreign as well as domestic manufacturers, is full of incidents in which disposable lighters overheated and exploded, leaked, caught fire, shattered, or turned themselves into flame throwers.

So what's the upshot? The Apple Lady who cares about people's safety and does not want to recommend that her readers do anything that would jeopardize life or limb wants to urge people, if you must buy lighters, please don't buy the disposable ones.! Go for the Zippo! Or if you don't want to spend that extra money on keeping your nose from getting burned off and you still must have the disposable variety, then be sure to choose one that does have the extra safety features on it.

Notice how the Zippo lighter has a lid that snaps closed. This ensures that the flame will be put out for certain, thereby reducing the likelihood of the majority of the accidents described above. The fact that Zippos are made of metal and thus won't melt or develop punctures is another key feature.
(Photo from

  • I say all of this while the ex-smoker inside me is muttering, Get real. Those child-safety lighters are annoying and wimpy. Nobody really wants to use those. Not only are the lighters without the safety guards on them better at lighting your cigarette, it's also pretty cool if you can tweak your lighter to make the flame bigger.
  • So it seems that I am diverging down two paths myself. I will compromise by giving you that time-worn, wise saying, ye pays yer money, ye takes yer chances. Meaning in this case, if you're not willing to fork out more than $2 for a lighter and you think the odds of getting your face burned off are low and you're willing to take that risk, then so be it.


  • Want to know how to open that non-twist off bottle cap with a lighter? Basically, wrap your hand around the neck of the bottle and use your thumb as the fulcrum and the bottom of the lighter as the lever. eHow has instructions.
  • The safety-conscious Apple Lady wants you to know that using a lighter to open a bottle could break the lighter or cause it to leak which could result in an explosion later.

(Photo from Talkkok Realm, which also has instructions.)

  • Some guy did a study to find out if all those people at a concert burning their BICs while the band plays Stairway to Heaven are contributing to greenhouse gases. His findings: nah. Not significant. But I'm wondering if that practice of slow-song lighter-burning is dying out anyway. Is it the new thing be to light up your cell phone and hold that aloft?

Cell phones at a Switchfoot concert
(Photo from University of Wisconsin-Green Bay)

Swedish Match, History of lighters and Cricket - in a class of its own
Fire Starters - History - Brief Article,
Whole Earth, Winter 1999
BIC World Product History
Funding Universe, BIC Corporation company history
Funding Universe, Ronson PLC company history
Tamar Lewin, "Lawsuits, and Worry, Mount Over BIC Lighter," April 10, 1987
Lee A. Daniels, "BIC Says Its Lighters Are Safe,"
The New York Times, April 11, 1987
Google, Disposable lighters history timeline
US Consumer Product Safety Commission, Meeting on ANPR on cigarette lighter safety, December 6, 2006
Commission of the European Communities, Draft of decision requiring Member States to take measures that only disposable lighters which are child-resistant are placed on the market, 2005
Risk vs. reward in the lighter category [excerpt],
Convenience Store Decisions, February 1, 2006
Snopes, The Lighter Side of Death, July 14, 2006
Darrin Burgess, Rock Concert Question: Are Lighter Salutes Bad for the Environment? Live Science, July 15, 2006


  1. Sorry to quibble with your math, but if one person is hurt for every million lighters sold, and three million lighters are sold a day, doesn't that mean three people are hurt a day from lighters?

    Anal math guy.

    1. Thats what he said.

    2. My lighter just exploded for no reason- no heat on it and I hadn't used that one since yesterday, we thought it was a firework going off outside the window but realised it was the lighter. I have a friend who was temporarily deafened when hers exploded. It is common.

  2. I own a Zippo lighter with my initials on it!

  3. I admire your raking the muck for our sake, Apple Lady! 97% of house fires-- yikes!

  4. I've heard that white lighters are bad luck. Some people refuse to light their cigs with them.

  5. Yeah, Jim, I came across that little tidbit. The most extensive discussion about that superstition that I found is on the Urban Dictionary page, but one commenter is correct in saying that it is chronologically impossible for most of those people to have had white Bic lighters on their persons when they died. So it's just a superstition.

  6. lighter sales going up even as cigarette sales decline = more people lighting the green stuf :)

    1. Or since scented candles have become mainstream more people are buying lighters to light their candles.

    2. light up the green stuff alright :) haha

  7. Ah, now, Anonymous, that's an assumption you can't make. People could just as easily be lighting the brown stuff or the red stuff or the orange stuff. That's to say nothing of the purple stuff.

  8. I just like to blow them up!

  9. Round Stick? I have a "Pat. Pend, dispoz alite, Stamford Conn., Made in France" that looks 1950s. It ceratainly looks older than anything I've seen; and, it still lights! It is shaped like a lipstick tube with golden metalic base cap and top, The mechanism is very similar to any modern lighter; but, the materials seem, intuitively, MUCH earlier than any Cricket or BIC . . . etc.. Doese anyone know whaty it is?

  10. When the release date for the round stick was mentioned. did the author mean that they were manufactured by the Swedish Match Company in 1955? otherwise the first lighter would in fact be the Cricket, not the Roundstick.

  11. Ah, yes, my remarks on who made the first lighters are admittedly confusing. I remember that a couple of my sources conflicted on who was the first, and I had some trouble sorting that out. It's all very vague in my memory now but I think the confusion had to do with which company owned Cricket at the time. A couple of my sources are now defunct, so I can't fully recreate what I was looking at when I put together this post.

    Looking at the available sources now, it seems much more clear that the Cricket lighter was the first. I'll update my main text accordingly.

    Here are the details as I found them in March of 2012:

    The Swedish Match Company says they made their first disposable lighter, the Round Stick, in 1965. Cricket says they made their first disposable in 1961.

    Cricket's website says: "The history of Cricket goes back to 1961. In this year the first Cricket lighter was produced called Annecy located in France. Cricket was the first disposable lighter brand in the world."

  12. And yes, Jason Gray, self-professed anal math guy, your math is correct. I've updated the text accordingly.

    1. bla bla bla boring article why would people read this??

  13. You wonder how sales of lighters went up when cigarette sales went down? Think about it...

    Have you not noticed over the past many years, with BIC disposable lighters that have the flames that cannot be adjusted by the consumer... the flames have gotten much larger, which uses more gas, which means they do not last as long, and the consumer must buy another.

    1. I think it's also a function of the declining availability of matches. It used to be that every restaurant & bar had those little packs of paper matches and either gave them out for free or sold then for some cheap price, like 10 cents, but hardly any of them do now.

      To get matches you have to go to the store and buy matches by the case of 10 or 25. When you can get a pack of 5 disposable lighters for $1 that will last longer than a case of matches for $2.99, getting the lighters is a no-brainer (unless you burn yourself with the lighter, I suppose)

  14. Why doesn't anyone mention the "dispose-a-lite", from the sixties? They were dark red with a gold top and if you turned the flame up high, they would shoot out little balls of flame off to the sides. Anyone remember?

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